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Will Spain-Netherlands live up to its billing this time around?

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Andres Iniesta of Spain scores the winning goal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 11: Andres Iniesta of Spain scores the winning goal during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Andres Iniesta

SAO PAULO – World Cup history will be made on Friday, no matter what the outcome of the blockbuster opening round matchup between 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands.

Never before in the 84-year history of the tournament has the winner and runner-up from the previous edition been either pooled together or faced off in their opening match, guaranteeing this time that the event will get off to a ground-breaking and explosive start.

Spain has managed to somehow duck under the radar going into this World Cup, despite the fact that it is chasing a record fourth consecutive triumph in a major tournament, having won a European Championship on either side of its success in South Africa four years ago.

The prospects of South American sides Brazil and Argentina, combined with Spain getting lumped into a devilishly difficult Group B, has tempered expectations a little for head coach Vicente del Bosque's defending champs.

However, despite its tricky opener, the Spaniards come in with the kind of confidence you would expect from a team that has dominated world soccer for the last six years.

"It is important but it doesn't give you any advantage or anything like that," said Spain forward David Villa, who will join new Major League Soccer club New York City FC when it commences play in early 2015. "I am proud of having done it and we are going to work hard to try to repeat it."

The 2010 final was one of the most disappointing as a spectacle in recent World Cup memory. The Netherlands had played delightful, flowing soccer throughout the tournament and beat Brazil in the quarterfinals, but the team opted for a rugged, physical and safety-first approach in the championship game.

There were few clear-cut chances and no scoring within the regulation 90 minutes, while the aggressive Dutch approach cost them John Heitinga in extra-time, with the defender becoming only the fifth man to be sent off in a World Cup final.

With four minutes to go Andres Iniesta found some space in the penalty area and smashed home the winning goal to give Spain a deserved victory, even if it wasn't especially pleasing on the eye.

Spain's momentum did not cease there. Except for a nervous penalty shootout in the semifinal against Portugal, it cruised through the Euro 2012 championships in Poland and Ukraine and in all likelihood, if this event was being held anywhere other than South America, it would be the clear favorite.

Skeptics point to del Bosque's aging squad as a detriment but the coach has no such concerns going into the team's first game.

"We don't have any fear," Del Bosque said. "But we do have respect. They are runner-up from the last World Cup so we have full respect for [the Netherlands]. We are very optimistic. We are confident heading into the World Cup."

Group B is one of the most difficult of the tournament, with highly-regarded Chile also in the mix while Australia is a huge outsider.

To add to the intrigue the runner-up in the group will likely face Brazil (if the host nation wins Group A) in the round of 16, adding extra importance to Friday's match-up.

The Dutch are expected to adopt a defensive stance again, this time under coaching mastermind Louis Van Gaal, who will step into the vacant Manchester United managerial position after the World Cup.

Van Gaal is widely acclaimed as a tactical guru and he has earned the trust of influential senior players like Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie.

"Spain are the reigning world and European champions and two teams from Spain played in this season's Champions League final," Robben said this week. However, the skillful winger did insist he believes in Van Gaal's theories and did not dismiss his team's chances.

Rightly so. The Netherlands was near perfect in qualifying, winning nine games and drawing one, scoring 34 goals and conceding just five, in what was admittedly a subpar European group.

As history beckons, the men in orange are not heading to Salvador simply to make up the numbers.

 

 

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